Are MAs the New Norm for Admitted PhD Program Applicants?


From a philosophy professor who prefers to remain anonymous, a question about whether it is now the norm for successful applicants to PhD programs to have (or be on their way to having) a terminal MA:

When I applied to grad school, (I think) the norm was to apply straight from one’s undergraduate institution to PhD programs. Terminal MAs were seen as good fallback options for philosophy majors who didn’t get into good programs, or students who weren’t philosophy majors in the first place and decided late to do more philosophy. Certainly, in my grad shool cohort and the cohorts surrounding me, almost no one had a terminal MA.

Fast forward to the present (and the past few years): the reports from students of mine that have started PhD programs right out of college is that they are a small minority. One of our students, who started this fall at an excellent program, was one of only two admitted students who did not have some further degree. During her visit as a prospective student, she and the other student met with a faculty member who suggested that they would likely find themselves less prepared than the rest of their cohort and suggested some reading they might want to do. She also told me that the other student who came straight from undergrad had got into a very good MA program and that his undergrad adviser suggested he turn down the place in the very good PhD program to do the MA just so he would have more years of training (the assumption being, presumably, that he would have no problem getting into a great PhD program again).

So, I’m wondering whether it is now the norm for students accepted to programs (dare I say “top programs”?) to have a degree beyond their bachelors. It would be very helpful for me in advising students about going to grad school if faculty at school with graduate programs could provide a sense of what percentage of their incoming cohorts in the past few years have degrees beyond the BA. We have had good success placing our students into good programs. But it’s also true that, with one exception, it has had the quality of a crapshoot: the students will get into one great program, but be rejected everywhere else.

Folks, what say you?

It would be especially helpful if graduate directors could share information about the applicants to their programs.

UPDATE: A graduate admissions director at a very well-regarded PhD program emailed me, writing, “Here is some hard data: of those 13 students that were admitted initially (not off the waitlist), 8 had MAs or the equivalent.”

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